Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Biological clocks and shifting demographics

Stork carrying alarm clock

So here I am, tugging the price stickers off the baby clothes I’ve bought for my sister. She’s due to give birth to a little girl within the next month. The child will be the first grandchild for my parents, who’ve had to wait a long time for this. It’s lucky that my mother is as reluctant to be called “granny” as she is, because the continued failure of her brood of four to produce any offspring whatsoever must have been a source of some concern. At least my sister is flying the flag for us.

My own family is a microcosm of shifting patterns in demographics, marriage and childbirth over the generations. My grandmother had my mother when she was 21. My mother gave birth to me at 26. When my sister produces her first child, she will be just short of her 34th birthday.

This is fairly typical. Across the world, relatively affluent, educated women are waiting longer and longer to have children. In my circle, it’s rare to hear of women who start having children before the age of 30. The social pressure to procreate varies from society to society, of course, and this has a concomitant impact on the age of first childbirth. Anecdotally, at least in my experience, Afrikaans women start earlier than English speakers, and mothers in lower LSM homes on, say, the East Rand, have children younger than their wealthier Sandton sisters. I’ve also found that in an office environment, it’s much more common to encounter relatively young black women who have children.

What about women who never have children, the statistic to which I’ll be contributing? Despite our assumptions about women who choose careers over childbearing, childlessness has been much more common in the past than it is now, with consistencies appearing in different societies across the globe. Childlessness has increased in cohorts born after 1945, but this was after a period in which childlessness was at its lowest ever recorded.

When I turned 35, I wrote about descending into a demographic black hole, and that’s exactly what I’ve experienced. I did everything arse about face, really, getting married at the relatively young age of 26 (most of my friends waited until they were closer to 30) and getting divorced at 34. To remain in line with my cohorts, I should have started having children around the age of 31 or 32. I am 37 now, and will almost certainly remain childless: I’m not in a relationship and have no prospect of being in one serious enough to warrant producing children any time in the foreseeable future, and I’m not interested in doing the whole single mother thing. So, that’s me out of the gene pool.

Fortunately this won’t turn me into some sad agglomeration of hopeless broodiness. My future plans involve lots of writing and travel, things that both require freedom and flexibility, and a child is not compatible with either. Not that I’d want to inflict my dubious genetic heritage on some unsuspecting infant in any event; my ambitions extend more to the production of books than human beings. But I’m very aware of how others see me, and how much implied judgment there is of women my age who refuse to do what everyone else does, and have children. Every time I blog about this issue, I get responses (mainly from men, interestingly) telling me I’d be much happier if I had children. People either feel sorry for me — shame, her life went to hell — or angry at the way I’ve opted out of some sort of duty. “People who don’t have children are selfish” is something I hear again and again, and I suppose we are.

When my niece arrives next month, she will have a very big gap in my family to fill.

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